Journalism & technology: to duel or dance?

I have a yes-but relationship with Emily Bell. I say yes to most every brilliant thing she says but sometimes am foolish enough to add a but.

Go read Emily’s important speech on journalism’s relationship to technology and its masters in Silicon Valley. I will say yes to her argument that algorithms that determine distribution spring from editorial decisions. I will say yes to her concerns about the implications of those formulae for journalism and an informed society. I couldn’t agree more with her endorsement of Zeynep Tufecki’s brilliant exploration of the issues surrounding open v. filtered communication for news: It’s Twitter’s openness, its immunity from gatekeepers either algorithmic or editorial, that allowed news from Ferguson to emerge online before it emerged on the news. It’s Twitter’s openness that also makes it a Petri dish for trolls, harassers, and terrorist beheading videos. I say yes to Emily’s reminder that the platforms we’re discussing are still very new; the Jell-O is still warm and formative.

But I would remind readers that it was technology that freed journalism from its bondage to media moguls and corporations. Who’s to say that our corporations were better than their corporations? We have Murdoch. They have Uber.

I would remind us all that the craft of journalism and the business of news have had 20 years — an entire generation — since the introduction of the commercial web to understand that they should be about more than manufacturing content to fill products and messages to feed to a public that didn’t necessarily ask for them. We have had 20 years to learn to serve people as individuals with relevance and value as Google does; and serve communities with tools to gather, share, and interact as Facebook does; and serve advertisers with greater efficiency as both of them do. And we didn’t. Can we yet learn to create our own technology? We’re not so young as Silicon Valley. Based on our miserable performance thus far, I have my doubts.

I strongly agree with Emily that there must be a discussion about the ethics and principles of the algorithms that distribute, filter, and thus shape the information that cascades over us, now that everyone can publish and share. But my first reflex is not always to build our own; see the prior two paragraphs. My first reflex is to help Silicon Valley define evil and good. As journalists we have a role in sparking and informing discussion of issues that matter to society; that’s our skill, no? I agree with Emily that this is an issue that matters. So let us start there.

Emily and I were both at a — I choke at the label — unconference at Arizona State’s journalism school last week called #Newsgeist. It was convened by the Knight Foundation (which funds both of our work) and Google. I jumped at the chance to join a discussion that I and others had proposed, asking: What could Google do for news? There were many suggestions around the distribution — the embedding — of news in containers that news creators can control and benefit from; around advertising and data; around security.

I now wish that Emily had raised and I’d have seconded a suggestion to convene a discussion with Google, Facebook, Twitter, et al to grapple with the issues she as well as Zeynep and others raise about the ethical issues presented by both filters and openness.

I would remind us all that just because we in the news business used to control the entire chain of news — from deciding what was news to deciding how to cover it to writing the stories to packaging those stories to manufacturing their container to distributing the container to setting prices for both readers and the advertisers who subsidized us — there’s nothing to say that we can or should continue to maintain that vertical hegemony. The web demands and rewards specialization. We now work in ecosystems that demand and reward collaboration.

I chose to write this on Ello, which was built as a protest against Facebook’s power. Bravo for that. But we know that no one will discover it there. I have but one follower, the one who invited me at my request to join the platform. I will tweet this. I will share it on Facebook. I will add it to Google Plus. I will link to it on LinkedIn. (I repost it here.) I will hope for the kindness of friends and strangers to pass it on. They, our public — not an editable algorithm — are the real gatekeepers now. What I have to say will resonate or not depending on whether anyone thinks this falling tree is worth listening to. An algorithm may or may not help that along. That is our circumstance.

I won’t discourage any journalist from building technology — I encourage many of my entrepreneurial students to gather teams with technologists to do just that. But I am not ready to pin my hopes for the future of journalism on the unicorn much sought after and PowerPointed at #Newsgeist: the elusive hack-hacker, the programmer-journalist.

I am certainly not willing to pin my hopes on government regulation. I’ll soon have an essay published in Germany in which I take my journalistic colleagues there to task for running to government to attack Google et al because they could not reimagine their craft and business in our new circumstance, bringing forth an avalanche of unintended consequences: bad regulation, bad law, bad precedent. But I also take Google to task for not doing more to rethink the task and responsibility of informing society.

I agree with Emily that we must report, report, and report with the skepticism many — especially the technology press — have let slip away. I’m worried about the journalists who have criticized Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith for reporting on Uber’s idea to perform opposition research on PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy. I’m worried about the journalists who criticized the Guardian for reporting on Whisper’s — not to mention the NSA’s — dubious doings. The critics fear that Buzzfeed and the Guardian will ruin it for the rest of them — that is, cut off their access to technology’s powerful. The new inside-the-Beltway is the inside-the-101-and-280. What’s insidious in both is journalists’ desire to be inside.

But skepticism need not beget cynicism. I can well be accused of being too optimistic about technology and its makers. I do that to counteract what I see as the Luddite reflex of too many in my field — I’ll link to that German essay when it is published — to attack technologists as the enemy because they ruined the business for us. I think there is a chance to work together. I think we need to.

As a journalist and now an educator my response to the issues Emily raises has been to convene discussions with Silicon Valley about its responsibilities — not to us journalists but to the public we both seek to serve.

  • Tom Murin

    A good read, as expected. I find the response to Uber’s opposition research to be interesting. Journalists don’t seem to give a hoot about the IRS improprieties since they concern right-wingers. A regular guy finds most of the dirt on Gruber because none of the pros had any interest in digging into Obamacare since they were in the tank for it. Is it a surprise the profession has dropped a few pegs, or more, in the eyes of the public?

    • http://twitter.com/graygoods Gray

      Hehe, the tried old trick of exploiting a comment thread to make your views known about a totally different topic (Obamacare, aka Romneycare 2.0) to the unsuspecting public! That never gets old, apparently. 1 point for being bold, 99 negative points for being boringly off topic, dude.

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  • David Sleight

    >”I will tweet this. I will share it on Facebook. I will add it to Google Plus. I will link to it on LinkedIn. (I repost it here.) I will hope for the kindness of friends and strangers to pass it on. They, our public — not an editable algorithm — are the real gatekeepers now.”

    These tools are not crystal goblets (i.e., perfect expressions of the audience’s will), and shouldn’t be treated as such.

    They are shaped implicitly by the culture and community of those that build them and explicitly by all the decisions they arrive it during the course of constructing them. Algorithms are built by companies and people. Those companies and people make decisions informed and influenced by their own goals, biases, and agendas.

    It may be minor, it may be major, but it’s important to remember that the builder’s thumb will always be on the scale.

    The sheer mass and collective will of the audience may be enough to overcome this in many, if not most cases (enough outrage, enough interest, enough sharing of a particular piece of journalism or information) but we’d be remiss if we weren’t mindful that it’s being influenced by another party in nearly all cases.

  • http://www.irrpal.com/ Martin Hoffmann

    A brilliant discussion! Which leads to my question, would it make sense to draw a distinction between high quality content and lower quality content/mainstream media, e.g. Economist vs Buzzfeed?

    Technology clearly ads a lot of value to mainstream media by replacing gate keepers and creating openness. However it’s my impression that consumers of high quality content will always want curation by experts. At the end of the day, time is our scarcest resource and when we visit the NY Times or Economist we can be sure to find relevant and quality content quickly. And I would be surprised if there weren’t a lot of subscriptions of those two media outlets sold to Silicon Valley.

    Not sure of this is a proof, but the fact that LinkedIn & Medium are hiring authors says something about what readers want. Forbes on the other side is experiencing problems because of its lack of curation.

  • Guest

    As a journalist myself, I agree that people in media “have a role in sparking and informing discussion of issues that matter to society”.We should not only ask Silicon Valley to think about social responsibilities,but also consider what we can offer and add value to their ecosystem(instead of creating our own from scratch).In turn,we ought to learn the data-driven and customer focused skills of the technology companies.It was interesting because we face the same challenges in my home country,Japan.

    I wonder,however,whether or not such values of journalism could be measured.We can always say to a Silicon Valley billionaire that “at news organisations[sic] the central organising principle is usually to produce something with social impact first ahead of utility or profit”,but how can we explain that such values can lead to successful business? Aren’t those values “public goods”,and people nowadays learn about them from online videos and blogs posted by university professors(e.g.,BuzzMachine),seminars,or discussions held in social media with families and friends?

    I think it is important for journalists to keep reporting and raising questions about our society,but the problem we are facing is that no one wants to pay money to media for such things.Universities have tuition fees to hire professors who write on their blogs for free and Facebook has ad revenues.We need a new metric to prove what we can do for the good of our world.

  • Ryan Takeshita

    Great discussion!

    As a journalist myself, I agree that people in media “have a role in sparking and informing discussion of issues that matter to society”.We should not only ask Silicon Valley to think about social responsibilities,but also consider what we can offer and add value to their ecosystem(instead of creating our own from scratch).We,in turn, ought to learn data-driven and customer focused skills of the technology companies.I enjoyed reading because we will probably face the same challenges in my home country,Japan.

    I wonder,however,whether or not such values of journalism could be measured.We can always say to a Silicon Valley billionaire that “at news organisations[sic] the central organising principle is usually to produce something with social impact first ahead of utility or profit”,but how can we explain that such values can lead to successful business? Aren’t those values “public goods”,and people nowadays learn about them from online videos and blogs posted by university professors(e.g.,BuzzMachine),seminars,or discussions held in social media with families and friends?

    I think it is important for journalists to keep reporting and raising questions about our society,but the problem we are facing is that no one wants to pay money to media for such things.Universities have tuition fees to hire professors who write on their blogs for free and Facebook has ad revenues.Having a nice discussion with your friend and colleague is luckily,free.We need a new metric to prove what we can do for the good of our world.

  • http://twitter.com/graygoods Gray

    Hi, Mr. Jarvis, I did like your recent article in German paper Zeit about the questionable stance of our media corporations towards Google and their Don Quixote fight against the very windmill that grinds their wheat, too:
    http://www.zeit.de/kultur/2014-11/jeff-jarvis-eurotechnopanik-google-verleger-essay

    You’re right, the hypocritical attempt of the publishers to have their cake and eat it at the same time was a daring, yet futile show of trying to exploit political power for shameless profiteering, with no concern about the implications for the online landscape in general. Good that this brazen blackmail failed, as most people who care a bit about the internets predicted, but this should raise a discussion about the extent of the media lobby’s influence on the major parties. I think it’s very concerning that the press, which should be the watchdog of the public, obviously has such a leverage on the legislation that it can push through an Extrawurst, a special law serving only their very own special interests, in shocking disregard to those of the public. Well, only good the people have blogs and social media nowadays, so that we don’t have to rely entirely on the very self serving reporting of the media corporations. And also to have discussions about Google (the seearch engine perfomance has deteriorated in recent years, imho), Facebook (whose data mongering almost matches that of the NSA), Uber (who unashamedly violates German laws), etc., that the big websites often aren’t interested in hosting. Btw, this may interest you, in a very much backward decision, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung (a major online presence here) terminated comments to stories and only offers a few hand selected debates about topics of the editors’ choice nowadays, severely limiting the ability of the readers to react on the stories. So much for ‘interactive internet’ and ‘Web 2.0’! More evidence of the German media sector’s often reactionary stance towards new technology.

    Again, thx for your story, and kudos for being one of the few US media pundits to look at developments on the other side of the pond! Such view from the outside offers a different perspective and is very welcome here. Pls keep up the good work!

    • http://buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      thanks, gray

  • David Griffin

    When you ask what google could do to help news, you might imagine a world where google gathers and organises what’s happening everywhere. Then rather than just ask google “where can I get a pizza” you could ask “who’s in control in Falluja”.

    But that’s where you come up against an massive difference.
    The existence of a pizza restauraunt is a fact. The quality of it is crowd sourceable.
    Google can do both of those well.

    But with news, the facts are rarely known (if at all) until much later, and the value is in the analysis. Google could fund a reporter, but will only ever be a delivery mechanism, not a part of the creation process. Google could could choose to pass on some of it’s income based on who reads what (as serving) headlines, but that just leads eventually to clickbait.

    Perhaps google could create an internet wide crowdsourced feedback on every news story, and pass on funds to creators based on an algorithm of reader judged “quality score”.
    Online comments would be ranked by other commenters, so every reader would have their own complex pagerank, used to calibrate their opinions on the story writer. If you’re a rude idiot, your sort of story will sink.

    Top quality reporters would rise to the top and make a good living. News quality might improve. People would try to game the system and google would close them down. Failing German news organisations would cry foul even louder and say google has too much power . EU would demand the personal pageramk algorithms were published. Data protection advocates would demand to see their personal pagerank then object when they realised they’d been called out for online bullying. People with aggressive or discriminatory manner would be marginalised, but so would nice people with substandard grammar and spelling.

    Google might therefore be able to “score” the news. But Google won’t ever (in my opinion) be able to answer a question like “was Bush right to invade Iraq”. You only have to look at the chaos in Wikipedia political pages to know that. And so news will always be down to people choosing to trust a particular source based on historical performance.

    But a man can still dream…

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